(Conversion: 1 liter = 61 cubic inches)
“When I told people I was going to ride a tricycle to Death Valley, they thought I was crazy on two noteworthy psychological levels. First, they questioned my sanity for even wanting to visit Death Valley at all, having heard of the sensationalized horror stories from 1849 to the present. Second, they questioned my sanity for wanting to pedal myself only 7 inches from the asphalt to get there. What?!? No car? Are you nuts?”
Excerpt from: Silent Passage, The Death Valley Tricycle Expedition
LEARN MORE: If you are contemplating a long journey on your own trike, and would like much more information than appears here in this short article, you may be interested in acquiring a copy of my book called The Overland Triker, a comprehensive volume on how to pedal the long haul on Planet Earth (revised and updated edition 2017, with 526 pages).
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TOURING ON A TRIKE
by Steve Greene
Casting off the familiar comforts of home and heading overland for an extended period of time on nothing more substantial than a human powered recumbent tadpole tricycle tends to unsettle the mind somewhat, especially if going it alone. In a way, it’s pretty straightforward and basic, yet somehow, an initial fear of the unknown creeps in and erodes confidence. Concerns of weather, traffic, food, survival, and even going to the bathroom fill the head with mischievous gremlins bent on preventing the acquisition of new life-altering experiences. Alone? On a tricycle? Out in the middle of nowhere? I need all the protections I’ve come to expect in life! I need guarantees!
Well, guarantees are only illusions we build around ourselves to calm the restless spirit, for the reality of our world provides only one absolute guarantee upon which we may rely, and that one is precisely the reason behind our penchant for constructing alternates. Pondering one’s own demise often initiates a powerful wake of grim and unbearable anxiety, thus many seek fortresses of immortality, intent on creating a haven of hope. Steering clear of anything out of our normal day to day existence, avoiding that which we perceive dangerous to our life force, is the norm. Take no chances! Stay safe. Don’t leave the box …
But are things truly more threatening outside the box? Or, perhaps a better question for the average Joe might be, are we even in a box? And if we are, what’s beyond it? Hollywood movies like Pleasantville, starring Tobey Maguire, and The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey, come immediately to mind, two outstanding creative works that strip bare unfounded societal belief paradigms to which the frightened masses tenaciously cling. The extent of life lies within delineated boundaries, after all, and we dare not question anything more. We are taught that those limits are iron-clad realities, all there is to what we are, so as a collective, we don’t even think there could be more … far more than our shackled minds conceive. We don’t think to even ask the question!
A few inquisitive souls however see the “Leaving Pleasantville” sign, and wonder what lies out there over the horizon; Or they behold the pretty blue sky and clouds over the ocean near Seahaven and consider it might be a facade, merely a fragile painting with a doorway. Their adventurous spirits yearn to discover what would happen if … if they dare to wander away from their habitual environment of pleasant mediocrity. Their calling is to strike out and do things their own way, not the way everyone else has always done it. They come to understand there is much more outside the box than within, and once they leave, there’s no going back. They become the freedom and opportunity few others see. They take the chance, and their reward is an indescribably vibrant feeling of being alive like never before. He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left!
Touring on a trike is just one of countless methods for accessing hidden doors through which the intrepid may pass, a rare and very unique mode of personal expression and challenge that takes us to whatever is beyond Pleasantville or Seahaven. The trike is like Truman Burbank’s sailboat Santa Maria, a secret silent passage into a New World. More accurately, those who are riding human powered recumbent tadpole tricycles around this planet have most likely already left the box long ago, and the trike is merely an extended expression of their mindsets, one of their numerous methods of discovery used to make the most of who they are, where they are going, and what’s available to them along the way. These people are Free on Three, moving about the misty realm of triangular locomotion with intense internal grins of epiphany, their world illuminated by the candle of wonder and curiosity.
It takes guts to ride a trike! With two and three ton moving mechanized machines speeding about by the thousands, or jammed up for miles at a walking pace, heading out on a trike is insanity taken beyond limits. You’ll be killed, horribly maimed, or verbally dishonored by impatient and angry self-righteous box dwellers who refuse to share their road with you! You’re obviously living on borrowed time riding a trike in this world. Only folks many cards short of a full deck would even consider doing it. First of all, what’s the point? Why go so slow? Modern cultures like ours only know one speed, and that’s as fast as possible … while multitasking no less. Trikes don’t stand a chance. What could anyone possibly gain from riding a trike, other than perhaps a little exercise while pedaling safely around a quiet suburban neighborhood in an effort to undo the daily stresses of commuting and earning a lot of cash to pay down that massive mortgage?
Of course, you probably already know the answers, and that is exactly why you are reading these words. You know, or want to find out, the rewards of long-haul triking, and you certainly realize, or soon will, that most of the traditional fears heaped upon us by The Boxers exist only in their minds, and that we too used to believe the same things ourselves … until we quietly escaped on our trikes and moved beyond the fear. You also have probably noticed the barbed wit laced throughout this text thus far, and perhaps may agree that through simplification life can grow in many unexpected and glorious ways. Touring on a trike is most definitely something you don’t want to miss!
After you’ve taken that trike out for multiple days far from the “safety” of your home, many awakenings crystallize within, the gremlins disappear, and it dawns on you that this small and simple human powered machine is the marvelous gateway to an inner independence, and if you’re lucky, perhaps even to a physical one as well. Trikes are liberating for those bold enough to ease themselves down into the cockpit and slice through the static and illusions that plague the other six billion hamsters on their wheels to nowhere. Get off the treadmill. Get in a trike. Get on the road!
Only those who risk going too far will discover how far they can go. There is no other way. These introductory words have been intended to serve as personal motivators, like a pregame pep talk designed to fire up the mind and body to succeed in the upcoming endeavor. Touring on a trike is probably a daunting thought for those yet to try it for the first time, but the memories, along with plans for future journeys, are well worth taking that first step. The expert at anything was once a beginner. We are all somewhere on that continuum, helping one another forward in a shared desire to leave normalcy far behind. If you are an experienced long-haul triker, take a new trike pilot with you next time. If you are new to triking, find a seasoned triker and tag along on his next journey.
This monologue has been crafted to provide some basic ideas about what it’s like riding a trike for longer distances over the course of several days (or even a weekend overnight if it’s your first time), and what types of considerations are prudent to make the experience proceed with as few glitches as possible. Nothing ever goes as originally planned. This we all know. And few things occur in the time span originally allotted. Of course, that’s the beauty of a rogue life with a trike on the road; the mystery of what will happen next is like a magnet to alternative thinkers like ourselves.
This old trike pilot is a firm believer in Murphy’s Law, that antiquated, seemingly nonsensical philosophical dribble about catastrophe being inversely proportional to preparedness. It goes something like this (in two of its infamous iterations): “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Or, seeing it another way, “The less prepared you are for something, the greater the likelihood that it will occur.” Yes, I realize this law has absolutely no basis in natural world reality … it is completely without foundation. But, nevertheless, its dark fog hovers silently in the far reaches of my mind, so I ritualistically make sure I have my bases covered to the best of my ability whenever preparing for an extended absence from my cozy little hobbit hole home.
The second version of Murphy’s Myth is the one I am most concerned about because it is the one that occasionally affects me. So, I just began figuring that the inverse of it must surely also be true (I call it Stevie’s Law): “The more prepared you are for any given eventuality, the less likely its chance of occurring.” That’s because Murphy can’t have any fun with me knowing that I’m ready. I think my dad must have believed this too because he was always harping on me to tend to every little minuscule detail. Of course, his warnings may have led to a Chicken Little mode. But happily, the sky hasn’t fallen on me yet!
Obviously, before we can take a trike tour anywhere, we have to have a trike! If you have yet to get one of your own, this is the first place to begin preparing for success, by studying all the manufacturers and what they have to offer. It’s sure nice to actually look at a trike in person before buying it, something that I was fortunate to experience because a local fellow was selling his low-mileage ICE. There are no trike dealers anywhere close to where I live, so I was lucky. Lady Luck smiled a second time on my quest by making sure the second-hand trike I eventually acquired happened to be one of the best trikes on Earth. Murphy had nothing to say about my purchase! I got a great trike that was more than up to taking me anywhere I wanted to go.
Until the used trike came to my attention, I was about to buy a new one from a trike mail order business called Hostel Shoppe Recumbents in Wisconsin. They are great people, very helpful, and eager to ship one right to my door … fully assembled, no less. It would have been a quality one also, as I had picked the Catrike Expedition. It didn’t work out that way, but having done some homework for several months on the best trikes according to the riders who share their feelings on the forums like Bent Rider, at least I had a pretty good idea what I wanted. Get the highest quality trike you can afford if possible, and be sure to save some money for all the options you’ll be needing, along with quality cargo solutions.
Assuming you have a trike that is built to last from high quality components, the initial step is complete. The peace of mind that comes with a well built machine is surely worth not having to worry about mechanical failures out on the road. We are out there for a good time, not to be tinkering with fixing a problem. It’s just like computers of long ago; they were labor intensive and user unfriendly, forcing us to focus much of our attention on just running the darn things, which leached creativity from the project we were using them to craft. We want to focus on the trip, how we can use it to enrich our lives, and the surprises it brings our way.
All this is not to say however that we should neglect periodic checking and maintenance. Even the best trikes require minimal upkeep to keep them up on the road. This holds true even if we choose not to ride across the county, state, or country. Around town rides aren’t too worrisome, for we can always walk the trike home if need be, but on 50 mile day rides into the mountains, simple routine maintenance is important for sure. A well maintained trike is always ready, and the parts remain in good condition so that they won’t let us down in the middle of nowhere. A few minutes spent on a regular basis will head off most any issue before it develops into an unwelcomed problem, and this routine maintenance time will also allow us to take spur of the moment rides with little preparation or worry.
Here are a few items to check and maintain on your trike:
Weekly: Tires properly inflated; Chain well lubricated (but definitely not overdone); Brakes fully functional; Quick release levers fully closed; Hydraulic brake lines in good condition (if you have them); Panniers and cargo trunks properly attached; Air pump present and functional; Road tool kit present.
After Every Ride: Brush tires off and check for leaks and cuts; Wipe off road grime; Wipe down chain and apply minimal lubricant if necessary; Check for any new damage or wear.
Monthly: Clean trike thoroughly with damp rag (no high pressure hosing); Check for cracks in frame or welds; Degrease chainrings, cassette, idler pulleys, and derailleurs; Lightly lubricate the chain; Lightly lubricate moving parts of derailleurs, such as pivot points and jockey wheels; Make sure pedal, crankarm, and chainring bolts are tight; Check bottom bracket for wear or looseness; Check idler pulleys for looseness; Lightly lubricate clipless pedal mechanisms; Check spoke tightness, while making sure wheels turn true; Clean rims and spokes; Check accessory hardware attachments.
Yearly: Measure chain with a wear indicator (such as from Park Tool); Replace any heavily worn parts; Replace brake and shift cables if frayed or rusty; Perform a thorough inspection from bottom bracket to rear tire, repairing or replacing anything in between that may contribute to a malfunction out on the road. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure … and saves us one big headache right in the middle of a really fun day. Remember, any little maladjustment or seemingly insignificant problem will be magnified hundreds of times over the course of a long tour.
If we conduct frequent inspections of our trikes throughout the year, hopefully on a weekly basis, the monthly and yearly suggestions will have already been addressed before the longer time frame. For example, we wouldn’t wait for the once-a-year time to replace a heavily worn cable, or the once-a-month time to tighten a loosening crankarm bolt. Quick and simple weekly inspections and maintenance will keep the cables in good shape and all the bolts tight. It’s like checking emails: Do it daily and it’s easy to remain on top of the job, but do it once a month and it can become overwhelming.
Tire pressure is probably the most common maintenance ritual any trike pilot will perform on a regular basis. The minimum and maximum inflation pressures are embossed on the sidewall of the tires, often expressed in pounds per square inch (PSI) and bar units. Seventy PSI equals roughly 4.8 to 5 bar units. Trike air pumps often read in both measurements, so you can use what is easiest to remember. My Schwalbe Marathon-Plus tires have a maximum pressure of 70 PSI, and every few rides, I make sure with the pump that’s where they are, although, with experience, you can get a pretty good “feel” what that pressure is like just by squeezing the tires with you fingers. If it feels a little mushy, out comes the pump.
Tires naturally lose air at a very slow rate over time, even just sitting in your garage unridden. On my Death Valley trek, I checked every day with my fingers. Then, about day-9, I checked them with my pump gauge because I had just ridden through a huge patch thick with nasty goathead thorns, so numerous that each tire’s tread was hidden by the miserable white heads and spikes. The three Schwalbe tires on the trike registered just over 65 pounds, showing the natural air loss with nine days of heavy touring. The two trailer tires and tubes, both of inferior quality, had issues, with one registering 35 pounds after the thorn removal chore.
The main reason I run the tires at full pressure is to minimize rolling resistance, even though it makes for a little rougher ride. Going up mountains is easier if there is less drag, and after days of pedaling over passes, that is a good thing. This high pressure isn’t really an issue for me because of the tire size, which is 20×1.75 inches, making for more of a balloon feel and absorbing the road irregularities. I would run a 2 inch width if Schwalbe made the Marathon-Plus in that size, but unfortunately, they do not. Keep in mind though that my trike is suspended, which makes a huge difference in touring comfort, and allows me to minimize the friction between the rubber and the road by keeping the pressure higher. The trike came with thin 1.25-inch tires, which do lessen rolling resistance more than 1.75s, but since I spend some time on dirt roads, I also needed the added buoyancy provided by balloon type tires.
Another regular maintenance chore is that of chain lubrication, although if you don’t get into a lot of dirt and grime, it’s not that big of a deal. On my first trip, I stealth camped on some dusty old roads with deep dirt, which quickly mucked up my rear derailleur, cassette, and the chain. It looked like they were all made of dirt … not good for parts longevity. Imagine the gritty chain pulling all that crud over the chainrings, jockey wheels, and cogs! Riding through tall grass is your friend, as the blades clean it off fairly well.
The secret trick is to not overdo the lubrication of the chain or derailleurs, as the oily substance easily holds onto dirt and dust, not to mention that if you throw the chain on an over zealous shift, you’re going to get all that tenacious lubricant on your hands or gloves when you put the chain back onto the chainring. Having lubricant on the outside portions of each link is not necessary, rather getting it into the joints of the links, where the movement occurs, is what’s important. It’s best to keep this lubrication task easy and clean by doing a little bit frequently if necessary instead of a lot every few months.
One way to tell if you have too much lubricant on the chain is if the chain looks dark, oily, dirty … or fuzzy from grime. Also, if it’s on there too heavy, when you touch it, your fingers will be a mess. The trike’s chain and sprockets should retain the original look of the bare metal if kept lightly lubricated and wiped free of dirt on a regular basis. A well maintained drivetrain will appear brand new, with no evidence of any excess lubricant … and, if you have to lift the chain back onto a chainring sometime, you’ll still have clean hands afterwards.
Start looking at bicycle chain and sprocket systems when you see them parked here and there around town, and you’ll notice some pretty dirty rigs because many riders just figure it will last forever even if neglected. What they fail to realize is that a clean and well maintained power transmission system will work more efficiently in the form of easier shifts, while at the same time prolonging component life. What is unimportant to local riders who are always close to help becomes critical for trikers out in the middle of proverbial nowhere. Get in the habit of keeping your drivetrain immaculate. It just makes everything easier, while allowing for better inspection of potential problems.
One semi-professional former bicyclist from Washington DC recently gave me an insider’s tip, so I’ll pass it on here for what it’s worth. If you have the chain off the trike, go ahead and get it as clean as possible (soak in Simple Green, for example), and let it dry thoroughly. Then, instead of putting it back on the trike and using a high priced chain lube from a drip bottle, which is what most people do, Joseph says to do this:
Get enough paraffin wax blocks at a hardware store so that they can be melted and poured into a small bucket. This product is extremely inexpensive compared to any typical chain lube. Have your chain already in the bucket when you pour the liquefied paraffin over it, which should cover all the links. Let it soak momentarily, but be sure to remove it before the wax begins to solidify again. Using a clean portion of a dry cloth rag, vigorously wipe the entire length down enough times that there is no waxy feel when running your fingers over it. At this point, re-install the chain on your trike. He swears by this lubrication technique, and says it lasts much longer because the paraffin actually soaks deep into all the moving joints of the links while they are totally submerged. I am intrigued by this method, and may well give it a try.
Also check your idler pulley, sometimes called a chain pulley, which is midway along the power side of the chain (the upper level of chain as it is pulled forward towards the crankset). Keep it clean and check for wear. On a part like this, is is good to inspect it when new, so that you will know later what it is supposed to look and feel like. This gives you a baseline for comparison as the mileage increases over the years. Actually, this is prudent advice for all your trike parts! Know what they are like new, and you will realize when they are reaching the end of their useful lives. Most parts will provide thousands of trouble free miles, so the chances of something going south while on a particular tour are slim … as long as you are keeping current on thorough weekly inspections at home, and making necessary repairs or adjustments when needed.
Assuming your brake and derailleur cables are already adjusted well, little if anything needs be done in this department, except as a cable wears with time. If either of the brake levers on the handlebars are touching the hand grip, or getting mighty close, screw the barrel adjuster by the grip out until this slack is gone. If that’s not enough to take care of the problem, you may have to reposition the lower end cable clamp by the wheel. The brake cables can be lubricated for smoother operation by disconnecting them at the wheel end, holding them up higher than the hand grips, and dribbling a small amount of light oil inside the housing, which will coat the entire length. Consider replacing the cable if it is frayed or rusted.
The rear derailleur has a barrel adjuster on it, which allows for fine tuning if your shifts are not as precise as you’d like. With the rear wheel suspended off the ground, turn the crank and shift gears, while working the adjustment until it is smooth. A good instructional video of this technique appears on the Trike Asylum website. And like brake cables, when frayed, rusted, or kinked, replace the derailleur cables.
Prior to departure on an extended tour, it is important to ensure that everything on your trike is in top operating condition, just as you would with an automobile before leaving on a cross-country trip. But it’s a lot easier with a trike, and requires no highly trained and costly mechanic to check out thousands of hidden and complex systems that make a car run properly. This is one of the perks of owning a trike! It’s simple, with everything right out there to view in your own garage. There are a minimal number of operating parts, and those can be readily checked and adjusted by anyone with a modicum of mechanical savvy and a good bicycle repair manual. Knowledge is the key, for nothing on a trike is so complex that an average person could not do it. Trikes are truly a liberating form of transport.
Basic tools will complete most aspects of trike tour preparation, with a few specialized garage tools necessary for those who prefer to do the more major work themselves, like changing bottom brackets, cassettes, or crank arms … where you would need a bottom bracket tool or a crank puller. It is common for trike pilots to have a tool set that resides on the trike for potential road repairs, and an extended tool set at home for aspects of maintenance that would rarely, if ever, be encountered in a touring situation.
Here are some suggestions for the road tool set:
Trike Tool Pouch: Tube patch kit; Spare inner tube; Tire levers; Air pump (such as Topeak Road Morph); Spare chain links; Quick connect chain link; Chain breaker tool; Hex wrench set; Spoke wrench; Phillips and standard screwdrivers; Small crescent wrench; Box and open end wrenches for front axles (unless quick-release); Multi-tool (such as Park rescue tool MTB-3); Chain lubricant; Needle nose pliers; Spare shift cable; Spare brake cable; Wire cutters; Small roll of steel wire; Utility knife; Electrical tape; Any other miscellaneous wrenches or tools needed to perform tasks specific to your brand of trike.
Well, this trike maintenance talk could go on for many pages, and is probably an entire article in itself for some future writing project, so let’s move on to other aspects of touring on a trike. We began this article with certain maintenance concerns because it helps to alleviate potential problems out on the road. We will touch again on a few of these topics later while discussing the tour itself.
There is a lot to consider when setting out overland on nothing more substantial than a recumbent tadpole tricycle, especially on a first tour, but it gets easier! Once a triker returns from the first cross country journey, it all starts coming together. Little things that you were unsure of before leaving now make sense, and “dialing in” the trike, cargo solutions, and overnights begin to gel. What was once educated theory, speculation, and advice is now a personally known reality. He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.
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We have talked about preparation and maintenance of the trike briefly, yet the trike can’t go anywhere without its pilot. On a trike, the pilot is also the engine, the key ingredient that propels the three wheeled machine on the journey. As the originator of the Triclops tricycle makes clear by the name of his company, we are all Organic Engines. Our fuel comes from calories in food, and fueling the engine happily is an agreeable and tasty task, far more pleasant than pumping toxic gasoline into an automobile, which then poisons the very air we breathe. And the exhaust from our organic engines is as harmless as a little flatulence now and then, which quickly dissipates in the big sky as we pedal along.
Just as we prepare the trike mechanisms for the trip, we must prepare the organic engine for the trip. One thing becomes abundantly clear when triking hundreds of miles over the course of several days or weeks, and that is how utterly sedentary we have become as a culture to get from one place to another. On a trike, we learn the value of maximizing our fuel rations, and how 5,000 to 7,000 calories may be consumed during the course of an ambitious eight to ten hour day in the cockpit. We eat like there’s no tomorrow and still become leaner by the day, whereas a motorist driving a car for a similar amount of time each day may expend but a third of those calories while doing nothing more taxing than sitting on his posterior.
Distance triking is not for the unfit … that is if one hopes to have a good time while covering wide expanses of countryside. Which would you rather drive across the country: a car with a well-tuned new engine, or one with a well-worn, poorly maintained, 250,000 mile engine? I’d rather drive no car at all, but for normal folks, the answer is obvious. The latter engine has a much higher chance of failure, which is only lost money. Organic engines fail too, but the cost is far higher. Nearly anyone who rides a trike long distances will become more fit with time, of that there is little doubt, but being fit prior to a big ride is definitely preferable. Using the tour to tune the body is not an acceptable option … iron out the bugs before you go.
All serious trike pilots are willing to attain a level of fitness far beyond that of the masses. This evolution is part and parcel with pedaling through the landscape. I have seen a number of overweight trikers, yet if they stick with it and take an extended trip, the excess weight will eventually be a thing of the past, assuming they don’t stop at every restaurant along the way. Being an organic engine has huge longevity perks, and allows us the freedom of silently exploring our planet.
How do we prepare our bodies for a tour? Well, that too could be an entire book on fitness, many of which can be found if you are interested to learn about the topic in detail. Those books focus on fitness in general, which is fine, but there is more to it for folks pedaling a trike. The unique manner in which the human body interacts with a recumbent tricycle demands preparation through specific practice prior to leaving the traditional comforts of home. Just because you train at a gym several days each week is no guarantee that you’ll do well on an extended trike journey. In fact, you’ll find that no matter how many barbell squats or leg presses you do weekly, there is still an additional initiation phase on the trike.
Remember that on a trike tour, you will be providing your own propulsion power for 6-10 hours per day, and that’s often not on level ground! On a trike, we quickly learn that even small uphills can be a challenge late in the afternoon, hills that you’d never even notice in a car. Pedaling over high mountain passes will tax one’s endurance capability, as it’s continual motion of the large leg and hip muscles that keeps us moving ever upward, and those large muscles demand a toll of hundreds of calories per hour. It would be unwise to leave on a tour if the body is not thoroughly prepared.
Getting the bod ready for a long trek is not something that can be done overnight. The best planning includes months of preparation in the way of exercise, diet, and mental conditioning. Getting your first trike and going for weekly training rides for three months prior to departure is not an acceptable solution, especially if you wish to avoid unanticipated and unwanted injuries. I would recommend a solid year of trike riding before considering taking a protracted jaunt cross country.
My own personal story goes something like this: I got my first trike during the month of May, for a three-state trip I was to take the following October, a trek that I anticipated would be roughly 2,500 miles. I had four months to prepare. Those 16 weeks should be enough, I reckoned. I figured it would be a snap, as my entire life has revolved around peak fitness and health. I had been weight training nonstop for 40 years (3 to 5 days per week), walking everywhere that’s practical, taking wilderness hikes since childhood, and eating what most people would consider an unnecessarily healthy Spartan diet geared for maximum functional longevity. Consequently, my mind figured I could ride a trike down to southern California from the central Oregon coast (over several mountain ranges).
As I went for increasingly longer and more taxing training rides during those 16 weeks, things came along fairly well, with no significant problems. My endurance was clearly up to the task of heading cross country. Strength was not an issue. The common annoying nuances and quirks associated with the recumbent riding position seemed to dissipate rapidly. I was so confident in my physical and psychological abilities that I often allowed a few days rest between rides … and being summer time, I was also involved in other outdoor activities that kept me away from the trike for longer periods than I should have been.
Here is where my thinking failed me: I had not at all anticipated the potential for repetitive stress issues that manifest themselves only after many consecutive days of riding. Getting up in the morning and pedaling the trike until evening when it was time to eat dinner and pitch a tent, and doing this day after day with no time off, brought forth some physical problems that were then unforeseen by an inexperienced rider like myself. To simulate a long journey, especially for the new rider, requires day rides from your house for the number of hours and days you’ll be riding on the trip, and these daily rides should be done with only eating and sleeping overnight in between.
Let’s say your planned tour will last seven days at eight hours per day. That’s a total of 56 hours of pedaling. To understand what effect the seven day trip will have on you before you actually leave necessitates taking eight-hour day rides for seven days straight, just like you’ll be doing on the tour, but instead of being out far away from home, you’ll be returning home each night. Only by doing this will a rider really get a genuine feel for what it’s like. The valuable upside to this preparation strategy is that if something does go wrong with your body or trike, you’re no farther than four hours from the house, which, at 8 miles-per-hour, would put you only 32 miles from a safe haven.
Prior to my first long distance trip, I did not take such action, and was not totally prepared as a result. This was a notable mistake. It didn’t occur to me then that I could simulate the actual trip right in my own neck of the woods. The downside is that for the best simulation to occur, it requires a hefty time allotment, which may be unrealistic for many people. If you’re taking precious vacation time from work to do your trike trip, it’s unlikely that you would desire to take seven days additional just to simulate it. This strategy is best suited for those who are retired or independently wealthy, I suppose. Although, a working stiff may still be able to pull it off prior to vacation time if he rode the trike to and from work each day, depending on the length of commute.
Since I did not simulate my ride ahead of time, an unexpected problem arose from my feet, an area of the body that I would not have guessed could bring me down on my first overland journey. Imagine the stress and compression that feet endure as they rotate the cranks hundreds of thousands of times on an extended trek, and you’ll see that proper footwear and conditioning is crucial. Short day rides now and then, with days off in between, allow the feet to recuperate, and thus do not at all simulate the real ride. Had I followed the advice I offered two paragraphs back, I would have learned firsthand about how the feet can fail under the right conditions.
Up to the last minute, I was still debating what footwear to use. I wanted to hike a lot on the trip too, so I ended up using my Merrill Moab Ventilator hiking shoes, combined with Power Grip straps to hold my feet on the pedals. There were SPD bindings on the reverse side of the pedals, so I could have used my Shimano SPD sandals or purchased regular cycling shoes with cleats, but since my occasional day rides did not properly simulate a tour, I was ignorant of a shoe’s importance at that time. Choose the wrong shoe and your ride will be cut short.
As noted elsewhere in my writings on Trike Asylum, I developed a significant swelling in both Achilles tendons above the heels of each foot, and the two toes next to the big toe of each foot reached an annoying point of numbness on the insides where the two toes touch. From what I have been able to tell from medical readings since the trip, the numbness issue resulted from crushed nerves and blood vessels in my feet due to the tendency of the feet to wrap themselves around the pedals on each revolution of the crank. The soft soles of the hiking shoes provided woefully inadequate support for pedaling 8 hours each day, and the needed tightness of the pedal straps further worsened the issue.
The Achilles swellings were clearly an overuse issue, which developed notably after an epic 20 hour ride over the huge Cascade Range, through a bone-chilling night with snow. I was undernourished, extremely fatigued, and my hands and feet were cold. An element of fear also existed at times, which likely caused me to really put the pressure on the pedals to hurry on to a warm lodge miles and hours ahead on the steep pass. All this combined to seal my fate with the Achilles tendons.
Could my problems have been avoided? On hindsight, my answer is yes. Had I worn traditional hard sole cycling shoes with SPD pedal attachment, the numbness issue may never have occurred. I now have Lake MX165 mountain bike shoes with exceptionally stiff Vibram soles, along with pricey Specialized insoles designed to stop excessive nerve and blood vessel compression, as well as keep my knees in line with my hips and the pedals, rather than their tendency to turn inwards with regular shoes.
I also believe that had I taken daily rides of 8 hours, approximating my ultimate trip, the Achilles tendons would have been properly trained to handle the new demands placed upon them. Simply put, I expected to launch into the world of trike touring on the fast track, to make my trip with a minimal amount of actual riding preparation, which was a big mistake. And that day/night portion that lasted 20 hours in the freezing cold was a notable error also. I should have stopped partway up the mountain pass and pitched a tent long before I foolishly plunged my body, and tendons, into survival mode.
Neither of these problems put a complete stop to my trip, for I could continue to pedal in spite of the issues, but who knows how long the Achilles tendons could have held out had I not instituted counter measures on Day 11. Were they close to ripping loose? I don’t know. What I do know is this: The tendons took about three months to totally return to normal, and the four partially numb toes did not enjoy absolute feeling for roughly eight months. So yes, I really did mess some things up pretty well it seems, and hopefully I’ll be all right from here on out.
My advice, for whatever it’s worth, is to have logged a solid year of regular triking before any thoughts of a cross country tour enter your mind. This gives the body plenty of time to adapt to the weird little things that all trike riders go through, strengthens the muscles, prepares the tendons, increases the cardiovascular capacities, soothes the mind, and allows time to iron out any potential problems long before they develop into serious issues out on the road in the middle of unfamiliar territory with help nowhere to be found.
Speaking of weird little things that all trikers go through, Recumbent Butt is probably ranked number one when it comes to enduring a brief break-in period after first getting the trike. For the initial few rides, as one adapts from walking to recumbent riding, one’s posterior experiences a dull ache, which is partially alleviated by shifting one’s muscular hind quarters on the seat while riding … or fully alleviated by stopping, standing up, and walking around for a minute or two. For whatever physiological reason, this unwanted sensation eventually ceases to be an issue, and you can ride forever in baby butt bliss.
Another thing to consider is that the bottom brackets on many trikes are higher in elevation than the pilot’s rear end, which assists blood flow back towards the heart, but tends to reduce it in the feet. On a traditional bicycle, the bottom bracket is at … well, the bottom, of course … which keeps the feet full of blood and feeling. A number of new trike pilots report some toe numbness during the initial phases of their triking career, probably due to this arrangement, but it usually ceases to be an issue, much like the recumbent butt phenomenon. They should call bottom brackets “front brackets” on trikes.
Since the feet are higher than the hips on many trikes, this is another good reason to wear stiff soled cycling shoes attached to the pedals with cleats, because having the feet wrap around the pedals in soft soled regular shoes on each revolution, with the blood supply further restricted by a product like Power Grip straps that hold the feet to the pedals, only worsens the propensity towards numbness. SPD cleats, or some similar cleat solution, are the only way to go for any serious long-distance triker determined to keep the feet feeling fresh and fine.
My recommendation is to avoid any strap product on a tricycle. These products work well on bicycles, where your feet are on top of the pedals, but have minimal value on tricycles, where your feet are behind the pedals. In order for Power Grips pedal straps to keep a triker’s feet attached to the pedal, they have to be fairly tight to keep gravity from pulling the foot downward, which is not healthy for blood circulation. Even with my Power Grips sufficiently tight on my trip, I did have a foot slide out once when I was fatigued and mentally weary. This is not a good thing if you are traveling fast, as the foot can be swept back under the cross frame member … ouch! A good cleat system, on the other hand, allows for unrestricted blood flow and relaxed feet.
Riding a trike on a regular basis strengthens leg and hip musculature. If you are used to riding a bike, a good thing to keep in mind about potential body issues is the difference between bike and trike postures, and the effect on the knees. Human-powered cyclists develop powerful and attractive thighs, calves, and gluteals over the course of several years of riding. On a standard bicycle, when a hill comes, most riders rise from the seat in a standing position to achieve additional leverage and power to make it to the top. This is because the leg muscles have more power the closer they come to the fully flexed position, as do all muscles. On road bikes, the “double” crankset is typical, with two chainrings, whereas on trikes, the crankset is typically a triple, with three chainrings. That third chainring is a small one that allows for ultra-low gearing to get over steep mountain roads.
A trike pilot, by comparison, cannot stand and use the body to assist because he is sitting in a recumbent seat, but since gearing on a trike has lower options for hill climbing, this “disadvantage” is overcome. The caveat here though is this: Resist the tendency to “tough it out” by staying in the same gear just to reach the top of the hill if the distance is relatively short. The pressure loads placed upon the knees in this situation can have disastrous results because the hips are fixed against the seat, and once you exceed the limits of the knees to handle the extra applied force, the damage can be felt in an instant. One second you’re fine and the hill’s summit is within reach, and the next second you know you have exceeded your knee joint’s capacity because of immediate pain. There are absolutely no warning signs before this damage happens to your knees.
I speak from experience on this knee thing. The funny thing is that it didn’t happen to me on my trip, but several days after my journey when I was pulling up into my sister’s driveway. I had been cranking around her neighborhood on flat streets in high gear, really pouring the coals to the pedals and pulling speeds of around 15+ miles per hour, and when I headed up the short, but steep, driveway, I figured I didn’t need to downshift. Well, I was wrong. In just a matter of feet, my knees cried out, and even though I stopped instantly when I felt the pain, the residual ache persisted for about two days afterward, really putting the fear into me. Once was all it took. I learned the lesson well!
To successfully trike long distances out on the open road requires wise management of gearing options. It’s better to be spinning faster and maybe going a little slower on a hill than to be maintaining maximum speed in higher gears by using sheer muscle power. Muscles can be trained and strengthened to a point where they can exert greater force on a joint than the joint can handle, something I have long since learned in my forty-some years of bodybuilding and weight training. I have had it happen in my elbow joints when doing weighted tricep dips, and in my knees when doing heavy leg extensions. If you want to live to trike another care-free day, go easy on joints always! Gear down before you find yourself on a steep incline. What good is your trike if it’s just sitting in the garage unused because you’re having knee surgery in the hospital? If you mess the knees up severely enough, they’ll never fully recover. I know several people who can personally attest to this, and it only gets worse as you age.
For your amusement, here is a short passage from my tricycle training notes during the weeks leading up to my departure for Death Valley from the Oregon coast. By this point, I had begun pulling the trailer on my rides to simulate the load, only I had barbell plates in it instead of actual supplies. This extra weight really slowed me down on the uphills! Okay, here is what I said back then:
“You know how automobile traffic seems to flow in waves? There are pockets where traffic is heavy, followed by windows of time where you won’t see another car for quite some time. Well, as dumb luck would have it for me that day, I lucked out for my precipitous descent. For whatever chance reasons, I had the road to myself, so as I was now pedaling for all I was worth in my highest gear to generate a high speed, I moved into the center of my downhill lane. Finally, my speed exceeded my ability to pedal … it was time to coast … faster and faster. Overheating was most definitely not an issue now, with the sea breeze whipping around my low aerodynamic profile, keeping me very cool. I felt cool, and to folks parked at the turnouts for the ocean view, I probably looked cool too.
“I have joked that the Q is more fun than a Ferrari, and let me tell you, at times like this, it is true! The feeling of the G-forces give the trike pilot a sense excitement that is hard to describe. My hands are firmly on the grips, not overly tight, with fingers ready for the brakes if necessary. The Q is a downhill racer’s dream machine, and even this narrow-track version is no match for a traditional bicyclist, who carries a larger wind profile, thereby allowing the Q to squeeze on by. Leaning slightly into each curve further assists the wide arcs that I am carving out of time and space, as my mind is fully focused in the here and now. Nothing else matters. I am one with the Q, which is one with the road. All worries of the approaching expedition preparation slip from my mind. Flying down this hill is my world for a time.
For a brief time, unfortunately.
“I have to find some longer hills! This reminds me of my windsurfing years, as the pure adrenaline rush is very similar. The difference with windsurfing is that you are always cranking under full power, with no end in sight except if the wind lessened. With cycling, to have a fun downhill descent, you must almost always have a protracted uphill. It’s somewhat like skiing, where you have to get to the top each time. With windsurfing, you were always at the top, and always screaming along.
“Towards the bottom of the hill, a cumbersome motor home finally appeared in my rearview mirrors, but I was progressing along at such a clip by then that it only required a tiny deceleration for the driver, who was already only going about 45 miles per hour due to the cliff drop-offs to the side. Oh, how I’d love to be privy to the thoughts and conversations had by motorists as they behold the distinctive Q in action! What in the world must the husband and wife in the motor home have been thinking, for example? To see this tiny trike and trailer screaming along in front of them must have been quite the conversation piece. There’s nothing much cooler looking than seeing a trike in action. It just defies the traditional comprehension of the collective social consciousness.
“Once down in the flat lands again, with only moderate inclines and straight stretches, I was spinning along without a care in the world. I was keeping my cadence fairly high to reduce the caloric burn and make it easy on my legs for a while longer (after all, that hill climb took its toll in calories and muscle burn). Maintaining a higher cadence, or the revolutions per minute of my feet, allows for an easier ride, but at a slower speed. Well, I had been daydreaming a bit and failed to notice two traditional bicyclists about to overtake me. They said nothing as they passed (unusual for most cyclists), so I was taken by surprise. As I watched them slowly begin to pull away, it occurred to me that I was feeling strong and rested, so I might just see how long I could keep pace with them.
“Methodically shifting to higher gearing allowed me to pick up my pace and I quickly pulled up behind them, even with my trailer of barbell plates in tow. With the higher gearing, I could surely feel the greater muscle power being used to maintain my position. They had panniers on their bikes, but of course, were no where nearly as loaded as I was with my 130 pounds tagging along behind. Heck, for me, it’s like I’m pulling another person who isn’t helping with the pedaling! Today, I was just pulling a bunch of steel barbell plates (gads, what an idiot I must be!). I kept up with these two touring bikers for quite a ways, but as the gradual incline back into town is very long, it became apparent that this was not a sustainable proposition. Now, if I had been unloaded with no trailer in tow, the story would have been far different.
“Coast Highway 101 is a very popular route for cyclists. Not more than ten minutes after the first two had disappeared from my view, in my rearview mirrors I spied two more bicyclists gaining on me. Here we go again, I thought … passed by two more! If I had an ego, it would surely have been deflating by now. These two were different from the first two however …
“The first rider of the pair was ahead of the second. I could not assume, as many typical males might, that the first was a man and the second a woman, and thus the reason for the distance lag. After all, on my practice rides, I’ve been passed by plenty of athletic females riding the coast, sometimes two at a time, leaving me pedaling from my low position and watching their posteriors rhythmically power past my pathetic excuse for a cycling body.
“So up comes the first rider right behind my trailer, and I hear him ask: ‘Do you mind if I draft you for a bit while I wait for my wife to catch up?’ He was right friendly, so I told him to go right ahead and catch my draft all he wants. I further added that I probably will notice no difference anyway considering the load already in my care. I asked him if he could really tell a difference, to which he replied: ‘Oh yes! When I got to within ten feet of your trailer, I could feel the load on my legs lessen.’
“Glad I could be of assistance! Here I am taking grueling training rides to really get in shape for this expedition, and now I have lightweight cyclists who are humming along much faster, using my vehicle mass and personal effort to make their burden diminish. This was a gradual mid-chainring hill, but it was long. Well, here’s the way I see it. Since this is my neck of the woods, and they are just guests passing through, might as well show them some good old Oregon coast hospitality. Sure, take it easy in my air wake … glad to have you along for a brief smidgen of company.
“The fellow asked directions through town to get off of busy 101 for a short relief from cars, so I filled him in on the main alternate route that would circumvent four miles of highway. He also asked directions to the bicycle shop, Bicycles 101, so I briefed him how to get there too. By then, his wife had caught up, and she was listening to our conversation. He asked where I was from and riding to, assuming that I was also on a coastal tour as they were. I explained what I was doing and where I was soon to go, whereupon his wife wished me all the best on the trip. After those words, these two, like all the rest, simply picked up the cadence and pulled slowly away. I kept up for a while, but again, with this load it wasn’t in the cards. Oh, to have the trike stripped down to race form! Oh oh, that sounds like my ego spewing forth again. Better get a handle on that.
“Anyhow, to wrap up today’s story, I finally pulled into the garage at home, and decided to adjust my neck rest. With this new bicycle helmet, I had to bring it forward and inch or so. Now, it nicely cradles my neck, just below the skull. It is a position about an inch behind where my head is normally positioned when riding with an upright head, so just a little more incline and I am super comfy next time out.
“After weeks of preparation and physical training rides, today’s ride went without any instances of repetitive stress issues or unusual fatigue. When I arose from the trike after 22 miles of strenuous riding, I did so with the same quickness and vigor that I would if I was just testing out the seat in the garage. It seems to me that finally my body has adjusted to all the quirks everyone had initially advised me about when becoming a trike pilot. No more recumbent butt, no more painful or numb feet, no more aching hamstrings, no more wiped out feeling. This ride was the point at which I can finally say that I’m good to go!
“I have now unhitched the trailer, removed the panniers, and stowed away the rack … for the time being at least. I figure that in 14 days I will begin a two month tour that will involve plenty of heavy load riding over the course of about 2500 miles, so why do any more now? Why not enjoy myself these last two weeks? Any rides that I take between now and lift-off will be unloaded for the pure joy of triking. I want to have some straightforward and unadulterated fun on the Q, and that will begin tomorrow.”
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